West Bengal Polls: The Muslim Vote

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI/KOLKATA:  The ongoing multiphase elections to West Bengal Assembly are marked by a new importance being given to the state’s Muslim vote-bank. Will the Muslim-vote play a crucial part in deciding the fate of the Left Front government, led by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)? The state has been headed by left bloc since 1977. The Muslims constitute around 28 percent of the state’s vote-bank. Of late, a lot of hype has been raised about possible chances of Trinamool Congress, headed by Mamata Bannerjee, in alliance with the Congress Party ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal. Interestingly, Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, is not contesting from any constituency in West Bengal. This naturally has raised questions about whether she is sure of her party winning substantial number of seats in the assembly.

The polls to 294-seats, spread over six phases began on April 18. Voting in the last phase will be held on May 10. The counting will take place on May 13. Within less than a fortnight, the political picture in West Bengal will be clearly laid out. At present, the possible impact of Muslim-vote in these elections shall be elaborated on. Out of the 42 members from West Bengal in Lower House (Lok Sabha) of the National Parliament, six are Muslims, with three from Congress, two-Trinamool Congress and one from CPI-M. The state has 15 members in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha), three of whom are Muslims with two from CPI-M and one an Independent.

The Muslim members constitute around 15 percent of the strength of outgoing state assembly. Of these, more than 50 percent belong to CPI-M and less than 30 percent to both the Congress and Trinamool Congress. The Speaker of the outgoing assembly is a Muslim from CPI-M, Hashim Abdul Halim. He has held this office since May 6, 1982.

Though Muslim-legislators’ strength in the assembly falls below their population-percentage in West Bengal, it would be wrong to assume that their concerns and grievances have been ignored or sidelined. A major reflection of this trend is that the state, under the Left-bloc government, has not been witness to any communal riot targeting the Muslims. In fact, Muslims have confided about their feeling secure in West Bengal. Here, one may draw attention to West Bengal government’s reaction, when Muslims were targeted in Gujarat-carnage (2002). A considerable number of the survivors, who decided to leave Gujarat, selected West Bengal as their home. Among these was Qutubuddin Ansari of Ahmadabad, whose picture with folded hands and tears streaming down his cheeks, pleading to rioters for sparing him, was then splashed across the world. He first rushed to Maharashtra, from where he was not spared by riot-mongers and some media persons. Eventually, he found a safe shelter in Kolkata, with initiative taken by some CPI-M leaders, including Mohammed Salim, who was then a minister in charge of secretariat dealing with development of minority communities. Ansari arrived in Kolkata with his wife and children in August 2003.

Electorally, apart from image presented by politicians appealing to Muslims for their votes, it is important to reflect on the picture that certain statistics suggest. More than 1700 hundred candidates are in the fray for contesting the West Bengal assembly polls. Less than 300 of these are Muslims. The Muslim candidates from CPI-M are more than 40, from Trinamool Congress- 38 and the Congress- 23. Interestingly, Muslim candidates trying their political luck are the maximum from small parties (116) followed by Independent candidates (61). Several major parties with minimal influence in West Bengal are also testing their political fate here, with Bharatiya Janata Party having fielded six candidates and Bahujan Samaj Party – 10.

These statistics clearly indicate that only 16 percent of the contesting candidates are Muslims. Interestingly, had Muslims decided not to enter the political fray as Independents and from smaller parties, statistically their participation as candidates would have fallen by more than 50 percent. When only the numbers of Muslim candidates fielded by major political parties, including CPI-M, Trinamool and Congress are added together, they constitute less than seven percent of the total candidates.

Now, the crucial question is whether the Muslims contesting polls as Independent and from smaller parties, will play a crucial part in deciding the fate of major parties in the fray? There is a possibility that a split or even too many divisions in Muslims votes may not prove helpful in helping Muslim candidates win. At the same time, considering that West Bengal is known for its secular harmony, the religious identity of candidates in the fray may not influence the voters in taking their decision. Their vote is likely to be more strongly influenced by their political preferences than religious identity of the candidates. There is a possibility that several Independent candidates may have been deliberately fielded by political players keen to cut into vote-base of rival parties, primarily on ground of religion.

Irrespective of the degree to which the religious card is being exercised by political parties in West Bengal elections, the crucial card is likely to be played by political speculation, apprehension and the trust that the voter displays through his/her vote. And the voters’ decision shall be known only when the results are declared later this month!

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Consensus Eludes Women’s Reservation Bill

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Euphoria raised over Women’s Reservation Bill’s passage in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) appears to have virtually lost its importance within less than a month. The bill was passed by Rajya Sabha, last month on March 9, a day after the Women’s Day. The bill proposes to reserve 33% seats for women in the Parliament and State Legislatures. Prospects of the bill securing passage in the Lower House (Lok Sabha) seem fairly limited. This was indicated by the failure of the all-party meeting held in the capital city to reach any consensus. During the meeting (April 5), chaired by leader of Lok Sabha, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, leaders of different parties expressed their stand on the controversial bill.

A brief note, issued after the all-party meeting by Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, stated: “The leaders of various parties expressed their views on the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008 pertaining to the Reservation of Seats for Women in the House of the People and State Assemblies.” “Further discussion will continue,” the note said, signaling that stalemate over the controversial bill has not yet been resolved.

The Congress party, heading the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, is on stickier ground than before, as at the all-party meeting, its key ally – Trinamool Congress Party (TCP), also voiced opposition to the bill. During the meeting, TCP chief Mamata Bannerjee, supported the demand of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Janata Dal-United (JD-U) for a “quota-within-quota,” as per which the bill should include reservation for women, who are Muslims, belong to backward classes and Dalits.

“The Muslim interest should not be ignored,” Bannerjee said during the meeting while joining the chorus raised by opponents of the bill.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also emphasized that the party would oppose the bill, if it was presented in its present form without a “quota-within-quota.”

Prospects of parties arriving at any agreement on the bill seem fairly limited. A key supporter of the bill, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has indicated that it would oppose it, if it included the demand for “quota-within-quota.”  Sushma Swaraj, leader of opposition in Lok Sabha, said that her party (BJP) was “totally against quota-within-quota.”

Interestingly, the left bloc legislators, supporters of the bill in its present form, have not clarified their stand on “quota-within-quota.”  While stating that his party was not opposed to “consider” the proposal for “quota-within-quota,” Basudeb Acharia (Communist Party of India-Marxist) said: “Under the constitutional set up, there is no provision in election either for OBC (Other Backward Classes) or Muslim minorities.” He laid stress that his party favored passage of the bill in its present form; in other words- without “quota-within-quota.” 

When questioned on his party’s stand on “quota-within-quota,” Gurudas Dasgupta (Communist Party of India) said: “We have not raised it.” At the same time, he said that his party was against the bill being “dumped.” The CPI is not against the government taking time “to arrive at a consensus” but was against “any kind of deferment if the intention is to dump the bill,” he said. 

The question of a “consensus” being reached on the bill seems practically impossible as the three parties (RJD, SP and JD-U) remain firm on their demand for a “quota-within-quota.” Their stand was supported at the all-party meeting by TCP and BSP. RJD chief Lalu Prasad said after the meeting: “I thank the government for this all-party meeting. But Muslim, backward classes and Dalit women must be given quota. Our stand has not changed. We have requested the government to rethink the issue and call for a second meeting.”

“We have opposed the bill in its present form. We are not opposed to reservation for women,” SP leader Mulayam Singh said.

With 441 members out of 544 members in Lok Sabha in favor of the bill, the Congress would lose majority in the House, if TCP withdraws its support. Interestingly, chances of the bill being presented in the Lok Sabha, without a consensus being arrived at seem fairly limited. The TCP legislators had abstained from discussion and vote on the bill in Rajya Sabha last month.

Developments suggest that bill is likely to be pushed to the backburner till a “consensus” is reached among the different political parties. In fact, the bill may not be introduced in the Lok Sabha without a “consensus” being arrived at. This is suggested by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar’s reply to how would she handle the chaos and stormy scenes in the House over the bill. Laying stress that there was need for a “consensus first” among all parties on the bill, Kumar said: “There has to be a consensus about that for which they (the parties) are trying. Lets see what happens.” 

Ironically, differences prevailed even on the wording of the statement issued by the government at the end of the meeting. Initially, the government wanted to state that the meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere and that decency and decorum would be maintained in the Parliament. The government was also keen to state that efforts would be made to find an amicable solution to the issue. Objections raised by Lalu Prasad, however, compelled the government to redraft the statement, deleting these points and instead state: “Further discussions will continue.”

During the two-hour meeting, the government was represented by Mukherjee, Parliamentary Affairs Minister P.K. Bansal, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Defense Minister A.K. Antony and Law Minister Veerappa Moily. Among others who attended the meeting were leaders of BJP, SP, RJD, BSP, CPI-M, CPI, JD-U, Telegu Desam Party, TCP and Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam. 

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Indo-Pak Joint Statement: Different Reactions

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2009-07-20T180844Z_01_DEL51_RTRMDNP_3_INDIA-US-CLINTON

Sec State Clinton and India’s FM Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna smile during signing ceremony in New Delhi July 20, 2009.    

REUTERS/B Mathur

NEW DELHI: Ironically, though the Indo-Pak joint statement issued last week after a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani has received a favorable response in most quarters, at home, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and few others have not welcomed it. The joint statement was issued after the two prime ministers held talks on sidelines of the Non-alignment Movement (NAM) Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt (July 16).

The statement described the two prime ministers’ meeting as “cordial and constructive.” “Both leaders agreed that terrorism is the main threat to both countries. Both leaders affirmed their resolve to fight terrorism and to cooperate with each other to this end,” according to the statement. While Singh “reiterated the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice,” Gilani “assured that Pakistan will do everything in its power in this regard.” “Both leaders agreed that the two countries will share real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats,” it was stated. The two prime ministers “recognized that dialogue is the only way forward,” and that “action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” They agreed that the “real challenge is development and elimination of poverty,” “to work to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence” and “reaffirmed their intention to promote regional cooperation.” The joint statement also said that “foreign secretaries should meet as often as necessary and report to the foreign ministers who will be meeting on sidelines of the forthcoming UN General Assembly.”

Briefing the Lok Sabha (July 17) on his meeting with Gilani, Singh said: “We discussed present condition of India-Pakistan relations, its future potential and steps that are necessary to enable us to realize the potential.”  “It has been and remains our consistent position that starting point of any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan is a fulfillment of their commitment, in letter and spirit, not to allow their territory to be used in any manner for terrorist activities against India,” Singh stated. Gilani “assured” him that “Pakistan will do everything in its power to bring perpetrators of Mumbai attacks to justice,” and “there is consensus in Pakistan against activities of terrorist groups,” Singh said. “As the joint statement says, action on terrorism should not be linked to composite dialogue process, and therefore cannot await other developments,” Singh said. With India keen to “realize the vision of a stable and prosperous South Asia living in peace and amity,” Singh said: “We are willing to go more than half way provided Pakistan creates the conditions for a meaningful dialogue. I hope that there is forward movement in the coming months.”

Expressing strong opposition against delinking of terrorism from resumption of composite dialogue process, the BJP legislators staged a walkout from Lok Sabha soon after Singh had read out his statement. “You have delinked terrorism and the composite dialogue. Why have you taken seven months to decide on this?” asked BJP leader L.K. Advani. “If terrorism is set aside, then how does the dialogue become composite? It ceases to be composite as a composite dialogue has to be all-pervasive,” Sushma Swaraj (BJP) said.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who served earlier as foreign minister, said: “If the opposition wants, we can have a structured discussion. There is no provision in this house to seek clarification from the prime minister on his statement.”

“We will have a structured debate, but as a mark of protest I would like my party to walk out to this capitulation,” Advani said and led his party colleagues out of Lok Sabha.

Outside the Parliament, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said: “This step by India has come as a shock. It is sheer betrayal and U-turn by the government. They are buckling under international pressure.”

Initially, the Congress declined to comment on the joint statement. But later, the party said that there was no question of not supporting it or backing out. “There is no occasion for such a question. We are not required to endorse it after the PM’s statement. His statement leaves no scope for any doubt and there was no question of not supporting it or backing out,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said (July 20).

Welcoming the joint statement, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said in Srinagar: “The cordial meeting between the two Prime Ministers has become historical as both countries have agreed to delink terrorism from Indo-Pak dialogue.” Several Kashmiri separatist leaders, however, said that Singh-Gilani meeting was “inconclusive” without participation of Kashmiris.

People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the opposition in J&K, expressed “disappointment” with the statement. “We are concerned over the omission of Jammu and Kashmir from the joint declaration and ambiguity about resumption of composite dialogue. This has caused understandable disappointment among the people of the state who looked up to the summit with considerable hope,” PDP leader and former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said. Reiterating United States’ support for dialogue between India and Pakistan, the visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week: “This dialogue between India and Pakistan is certainly one that could only be pursued with the agreement and commitment of the two countries and the leaders, but of course the United States is very supportive.” Earlier, Robert O. Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia said in Washington: “India and Pakistan face common challenge and we will support continuing dialogue to find joint solutions to counter terrorism and to promote regional stability” (July 16).

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Indian Voters’ Shrewd & Stunning Verdict

May 21, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2009-05-20T124442Z_01_DEL200_RTRMDNP_3_INDIA-ELECTION-SUPPORT

PM-elect Manmohan Singh (R) addresses the media next to Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi (L) after their meeting with President Pratibha Patil in New Delhi May 20, 2009.  India’s Congress party-led coalition has the support of 322 lawmakers, Singh said Wednesday, giving it a clear majority in a new government.     

Reuters/Adnan Abidi

NEW DELHI:  Definitely, the average Indian voter has proved to be far more intelligent than sharp political analysts and key political parties probably envisaged him/her to be. The electoral verdict spells a return to power of not just the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) but also a defeat of controversial as well as highly sensitive communal issues raised by certain politicians. Besides, the poll verdict also indicates the major role that can be played by average Indian voter’s decision of not being taken for a ride by the tall promises spelt out by politicians in the fray. Not surprisingly, while the Congress leaders are celebrating their return to power with a massive lead over their rivals, the others are pondering are what could be responsible for their dismal performance. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has won 261 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, with it being only a few seats short of the magic number-272 needed to claim majority. National Democratic Alliance trails behind with 157 seats, the Third Front – 59 and Fourth Front securing only 27. While the Congress in UPA has bagged 205 seats, the BJP has managed only 116. The left front bloc in Third Front has won just 24. In the Fourth Front, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has failed to win a single seat, with its own leader Ram Vilas Paswan suffering defeat, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s score has fallen to four, while Samajwadi Party (SP) has managed to win only 23.

Compared to 2004 results, while Congress has gained more seats, most parties have fallen significantly short of what they gained earlier. In 2004, Congress won 148, the SP-30, RJD-23 and the left bloc – 61. The BJP has gained marginally as it won 110 seats in 2004. The performance of Congress in Uttar Pradesh has been phenomenal, where while in 2004 it could not win even 10 seats, this time it has bagged 21. Crediting party leader Rahul Gandhi for improving the Congress’ score in UP, Jyotiraditya Scindia said: “All credit goes to Rahul Gandhi for single handedly reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. What worked was the combination of Manmohan Singh’s policies and Rahul Gandhi’s thrust on party cadres and youth.”

It is also held that SP lost Muslim votes to Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) by having aligned with Kalyan Singh, who as the then UP chief minister is held responsible for demolition of Babari Masjid in Ayodhya (December 6, 1992). There is also the view that by reaching out to Kalyan, SP managed to attract votes of Dalits and Yadavs and thus could win 23 in UP. Revival of Congress together with SP’s political strategy prevented a substantial chunk of votes from Brahmins, Muslims as well as Dalits going to BSP. The BSP leader, UP Chief Minister Mayawati was apparently banking on winning around 50 percent of seats from UP, which sends 80 legislators to Lok Sabha.  It has won 20, increasing its 2004-score by just four seats.

Congress has also gained, with its Trinamool Congress (TC) winning 19 seats in West Bengal. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has won 33, Maharashtra- 17, Rajasthan-20, Kerala-13, Madhya Pradesh –12, Gujarat- 11 and Delhi- 7. The BJP has managed to win 19 in Karnataka, Gujarat -15, Madhya Pradesh- 16, UP-10, Maharashtra – 9 Rajasthan- 4, and 12 in Bihar, where its key ally Janata Dal-United has won 20 seats.

Interestingly, neither Congress nor of any its old allies have fared well in Bihar. Differences over seat sharing with Congress in Bihar, prompted RJD, SP and LJP to float the Fourth Front, that has secured only four seats. There is a view, that common Biharis, including the Muslims, have been “taken for a ride for too long by tall promises made RJD and LJP leaders. So they decided to teach them a hard lesson in these elections.” With RJD’s own score confined to four, that of LJP – zero, in addition to this being a hard hit for their political image, both the parties have lost the numerical importance they earlier held for UPA.

Conceding defeat, BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley said: “We accept voters’ mandate with full respect. If we have an overall view of the trends, then we see that we have performed below our expectations as we had expected our tally to improve from the last elections.”

Accepting that Congress has performed better than expected, CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat said: “The CPI-M and left parties have suffered a major setback in these elections. This necessitates a serious examination of the reasons for the party’s poor performance.” “The Congress and its allies have succeeded all over the country. They have done well on the platform they provided to the voters,” he said. Ruling out the option of left supporting the Congress-led UPA, Karat said that they would sit in the opposition.

“Our expectations have not been fulfilled, we admit. Congress is in a position to form the government. Let them form it,” Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan said. On prospects of left supporting the Congress, Bardhan said: “Why should they need our support? They don’t need our support. We will sit in the opposition and fight for the cause of the poor.”

Poor performance of BJP and the left bloc is also attributed to both groups suffering from a leadership-crisis. During these elections, while BJP was devoid of its chief campaigner – former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the left bloc had to manage without Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) comrade Jyoti Basu. Both have retired from politics due to health reasons. In West Bengal, unlike in 2004, when CPI-M won more than 20 seats, this time it has got only 9, while its rival TC’s score has increased from one to 19.

Janata Dal-United (JD-U) leader Sharad Yadav holds BJP-candidate Varun Gandhi’s “hate speeches” and projection of Modi as future prime minister responsible for NDA’s dismal performance. “It may be right or wrong or he (Varun’s) might have denied, but his statement has caused immense damage. His statement was unconstitutional. It was against the country’s unity and must have affected the polls,” Yadav said. Terming projection of Modi as prime minister as a political mistake, Yadav said: “It was a factor. When the issue had come up, it created confusion among the people’s mind. Since the NDA had already declared a Prime Ministerial candidate (L K Advani) unanimously, the issue should have been dismissed immediately.”

Yadav’s comments suggest that in addition to its own campaign, Congress has fared well because of wrong strategies pursued by rivals in the fray. While politicians have yet to figure out causes of their defeat, the voter has shrewdly declared his verdict- giving all in the race to ponder over where did they fail. Undeniably, had Congress checked the seats won by BJP and its NDA-allies in states like Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, it may have been able to form a single-party government. Though the Congress has fared well, it still has to deliberate on what prevented voters from extending it greater support!

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